For as long as there have been teachers, kids, and writing implements, writing has been used to punish unruly students. Whether it was writing “I will not talk in class” twenty times on the chalkboard or being told to pen a dreaded 500-word essay on “respect” after a too-rowdy assembly, most of us have memories of a writing assignment being used to punish us for bad behavior.
Then we wonder why so many people—kids and adults alike—hate writing.
Think about that for a moment. Writing is a creative endeavor. Like painting, music, or photography, writing is an artform. It can be beautiful, expressive, exploratory, and rewarding.
More importantly, writing is an essential part of our everyday lives, both at work and at home. We write emails, post product reviews, produce content for websites, write sales reports, document procedures, fill out applications, keep gratitude journals, or just send Grandma’s cookie recipe to Cousin Ted.
But because many of us were conditioned as children to view writing as a threat, a punishment, and a thing to be feared, we grew up to dread writing, no matter what form it takes. We fear it, and we have no confidence in our ability to do it because we avoid it whenever we can. We were taught to do that.
We don’t twist other artistic forms of expression in quite the same way.
I’ve never heard a teacher say, “Because you didn’t line up for recess quietly enough, you must each take a ball of clay and make a sculpture.” No child ever got sent to detention to make a finger painting of an elephant holding a daisy.
But a 3-page essay on why “silence is golden”? Sure, we’ve all seen that. In fact, a friend just told me, “As a 4th grade child I had pages and pages of ‘silence is golden’ written out so I was ready to turn them in the next time I got in trouble for talking. It taught me nothing. Why is it that we use writing that way?”
What if—and I know this sounds wacky, but stick with me here—we tried to modify the way we use writing as a disciplinary tool?
Believe me, I completely understand why some teachers may do it. Asking kids to write something gets the students to sit down and be quiet for a few minutes, and that’s huge in a classroom environment. A disciplinary writing assignment also requires no special supplies, no cost, and no prep time, which are equally important to our overworked, underpaid educators. And it’s behavior that most teachers probably experienced when they were children themselves, so it feels “normal.”
I totally understand, and I support educators whole-heartedly for all they do (and for all they do with so little support).
I’d just like to humbly propose that perhaps it’s time we re-think the writing-as-discipline approach, because that has conditioned generations of American adults to hate and/or fear writing. And that leads to simple everyday writing tasks causing undue stress. It contributes to low literacy. It leads to unclear business communications.
And, alarmingly, it silences voices the world needs to hear.
As a new school year approaches, I ask all the educators, school administrators, and home-schoolers out there to take a fresh look at how we use writing assignments.
Instead of making writing feel like drudgery, can we focus instead on showing students that writing can be a channel for creativity, imagination, and the joy of expression?
I’m not saying writing assignments can’t be used to quiet a classroom. But perhaps they can be used more as a “redirecting” tool. Rather than focusing on punitive topics (like “silence is golden”), make the writing topics funny. I once had a teacher threaten to make us write “50 Ways to Pluck a Duck.” The very thought of that topic made the class laugh, and the energy in the room changed 180 degrees. We didn’t have to write the essay, but I know I spent more than a few minutes wondering how, exactly, did you pluck a duck? Topics that spark creativity, imagination, and sense of adventure or wonder can turn a chore into a creative moment.
Instead of making them write “I will not disrupt the class” twenty times, how about asking them to write song lyrics about a kid who is shy? Or a story about life from a dog’s point of view? Or a mini-script of two people lost in a carnival funhouse? Or a retelling of Hansel and Gretel? Or maybe go ahead and have them make a clay sculpture or paint that elephant with its daisy.
Often (obviously, not always), kids who are misbehaving are in need of a more productive channel for their energy. Making the writing assignment feel like an acceptable outlet for some of that energy could go a long way.
It’s important, I think, to seek balance. Perhaps teachers who frequently use “punitive” writing assignments can balance them by adding more “rewarding” writing assignments to their toolbox. Wouldn’t it be grand to train a classroom full of kids that writing can be a reward for good behavior, as well as a redirecting exercise for unwelcome behavior? That might take some of the dread out of writing and focus more on the results of student behavior.
The internet is full of resources for teachers to find help managing classroom behavior, with tools and techniques that go well beyond the old “writing as punishment” standby. For example, Dr. Allen Mendler on the TeachThought University website writes about “6 Strategies For Growing Closer To Your Most Challenging Students.” I don’t claim to be an expert. But I see the results of punitive writing assignments in the adults around me who shudder at the thought of writing anything. So, I’m just hoping to spark some new ideas and ways of thinking about writing in the classroom.
Instead of growing a new generation of writing-averse children, let’s turn our kids into fearless writers—ones who don’t groan at the thought of an essay, but who welcome writing into their toolboxes of self-expression, alongside their watercolors, markers, guitars, clay, and cameras.
Writing can be a joyous outlet for creativity, but we have to stop making it always feel like a punishment first.
Excuse me while I go write that on the whiteboard twenty times.
[Illustration by Kelley J. P. Lindberg, based on chalkboard image by Oberholster Venita from Pixabay]
John Jacobs says
I have heard this argument made before – but have NEVER seen a reference to ANY study or research that scientifically backs up the conclusion that writing punishments makes kids hate writing.
Frankly, it sounds very politically correct to me.
I experienced the “writing lines” punishment as a school child decades ago. Yet I was ALWAYS – even at a young age – able to discriminate between punishment writing and, say, creative writing for fun. And, frankly, I cannot recall a single one of my many classmates who were also unable to make the distinction.
What is interesting is that even though writing punishments are used far less often in “modern” schools, the quality of student writing seems to have undergone a precipitous and on-going decline.
This is in sharp contrast to those of us from an older generation who were subject to writing punishments as a matter of course. Somehow, though, the overall quality of student writing was better – notwithstanding.
I believe that “writing lines” punishment is so obviously a strictly punitive disciplinary measure that even young children are able to dissociate it from normal academic and creative writing.
Let’s take another activity – running. I have always enjoyed this form of exercise – even though the technique of “penalty laps” for mistakes was very commonly applied during gym classes and team sports training. All of us were quite able to distinguish between the use of running as punishment and running for fun and improved health.
I strongly suspect that the difference between punishment and non-punishment writing is the same for most people.
The idea that punishment writing teaches students to hate writing may be intuitive – but, it is also untrue!